Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson looks at gentrification’s effects in her latest work
By TRACEY SCOTT WILSON February 14, 2014 12:00PM
Tracey Scott Wilson (at right) in rehearsal for ‘Buzzer’ at Goodman Theatre.
Updated: March 4, 2014 4:33PM
There’s a general feeling, especially in the “post-racial Obama age” we’re entering, that society has moved “beyond” race. The things we think we’re supposed to say, the things we actually say and the things we truly believe are often at odds that can be awkward at best — during the course of casual conversation, for instance — and dangerous at worst, as on the streets.
Amid Chicago’s complex history of economic and racial disparities, the way the city’s neighborhoods have gentrified over the course of the past decade arguably exposes certain biases. Pilsen’s revitalization, for example, was practically a citywide effort that has resulted in a veritable melting pot of residents — from the real estate industry buying and repurposing properties, to the media promoting the area as a nice place to live and visit, to rezoning and other municipal efforts. Bronzeville, on the other hand, has for a time seen an uptick in development, largely from the black middle- and upper-middle class, but because of the lingering perception of the South Side and black neighborhoods as poor and riddled with violence, not as many businesses or residents of other races are settling there. As Emily Badger wrote in the Atlantic, “It’s as if gentrification can’t happen without an influx of white residents, and so it must not be happening. How can the neighborhood’s prospects have really changed if its demographics haven’t? Bronzeville’s historic ‘blackness’ appears to overwhelm any sense of its identity as a neighborhood on the way up.”
Gentrification may be one of the most common experiences in the United States today, and those of the Millennial generation, in particular — those who’ve been reared in a more multicultural environment than their parents, in a “colorblind” world where Beyoncé and Jay-Z are the biggest stars — are urban pioneers of a different stripe. I was inspired to write my latest play, “Buzzer,” after learning about the racial conflicts that occurred in New York City when Columbia University began expanding into the inner city. That often-volatile conflict occurred in the 1970s, when recent civil rights gains were still very new. The language around the discussion has changed, but the essence of the dialogue, or the lack of one, about race in an ever-changing America has remained.
While watching this play, which follows three such young people as they move into a newly rehabilitated building in a lower-class, urban neighborhood, I want audiences to ask themselves honestly where they position themselves as the story unwinds. As the trio — a successful black attorney who grew up in this neighborhood; his white girlfriend who teaches at a tough inner-city school, and his troubled boyhood best friend (also white) — are forced to confront the racial and sexual tensions that arise both inside their home and outside their apartment, who are you judging, and why? Whose side are you on? Is there a right answer? I hope that the conversations that arise from “Buzzer” lead us to a complex discussion about what race, class and sex mean in today’s “post-racial” America.
“Buzzer” runs through March 9 at Goodman Theatre. For tickets, visit Goodmantheatre.org/buzzer.